September 19, 2019
A thoughtful story of faith and doubt, hope and disappointment, friendship and marriage, career and family….
Genre/Categories/Setting: Literary Fiction, Faith, Marriage and Family, 1960s Manhattan
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Four very different individuals (two couples) navigate relationships, marriage, children, faith, career, ministry, crisis, joy, friendship, forgiveness, uncertainty, understanding, and heartbreak. The couples meet in the 1960s when the men, Charles and James, accept positions as co-pastors of the Third Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. The relationship between the couples is strained because the wives are polar opposites: Lily is a loner and an atheist and Nan values connection and is a devout Christian. In this tender character-driven story that covers decades of life, we also learn the backstory of each individual.
The most difficult books I review are those that I love, LOVE, L O V E. I think the connections we make with a book greatly affect our reactions and reviews, and this one checked all my boxes for an exceptional, memorable, and thoughtful read.
Ten Reasons Why I Love The Dearly Beloved:
Lily, Charles, Nan, and James are interesting, unique, dynamic, and thoughtful characters who wrestle with life, faith, marriage and family, career, community, friendship, compassion, heartbreak, and forgiveness. Every person faces challenges in life (marriage, career, friendship, etc), and the author explores how faith might or might not play a role in our individual lives by following these four diverse characters and their marriages over several decades.
I love the compelling premise that one minister’s wife is an atheist. I had a little difficulty understanding that Charles in light of his “calling” would choose to marry an atheist. He had to know how complicated his life would become! At first, I questioned the likeability of Lily, a complicated and complex person. By story’s end, her sacrifice, her honesty and willingness to support her husband and her friends, and her determination and commitment in facing difficult circumstances won me over.
This is one beautifully written story and, in my opinion, it is an example of literary fiction which many find difficult to define. Briefly, this is how I think of literary fiction: 1. character-driven, 2. masterful writing, 3. focus on “meaning of life” themes. A Gentleman in Moscow and Crossing to Safety come to mind as two examples.
I love words, metaphors, and unique turns of phrases, and I was captivated by the exquisite writing throughout the story. This is one example (among hundreds) of a sentence that caught my attention:
“While she was away, they had been able to forget the accident. When she returned, they had been forced to pick up their rakes of grief and drag them along the ground.”
Themes make or break a story for me, and The Dearly Beloved explores an ambitious collection of themes/topics including atheism, church committees/church politics, music, academics, call to ministry, infertility, an autism diagnosis, crisis of faith, the expectations of a minister’s daughter, the grief when orphaned as a teenager, the role and expectations of a minister’s wife, the work of the church, doubt, falling in love with a person who doesn’t share your faith, friendship, leadership, community work, and social justice.
As a person of faith, I appreciate the honest reflection on the importance of the role of faith in the life experiences of our four main characters. When the characters face challenging circumstances, they explore their faith as they deal with doubt and ask difficult questions. This is not a book about religion and it doesn’t proselytize. I can add that faith in a larger concept is also explored: faith in marriage, friendship, and community. I think you can enjoy and appreciate this book even if you are not a religious person or part of the Presbyterian denomination. If you are a person of faith, you may actually be frustrated that the author doesn’t do more.
I love the exploration of friendship within these pages. A lifetime of friendship isn’t always easy and at times is challenging and stretching and sacrificial. Circumstances throw these couples together, commitment forces them to resolve their issues, and acceptance, forgiveness, and joy are the rewards.
Community is an important focus of The Dearly Beloved: the church community as well as the larger community. James, especially, exhibits a strong sense of social justice and desires to fix the wrongs of the world; in fact, this is a huge part of why he chose to become a minister. The educational services he is able to organize for children in the community with disabilities is a poignant part of the story.
Even though this happens to fall at number eight, it’s actually one of the things I love most about this story. I greatly appreciate that the author allows readers to draw their own conclusions! I’m a bit weary of authors’ heavy-handed agendas and pedantic restatements. Reading this gentle story is a welcome reprieve from all that. Cara Wall simply and even-handedly presents the story, the issues, and the characters. She is not negative, judgmental, opinionated, or critical. The readers do the hard work of forming opinions and drawing conclusions. For me, this is a quality of an exceptional writer! It is refreshing!
Making connections with the reading makes for a rich reading experience. Throughout the reading, I thought of different people in my life who are similar in circumstances or beliefs to the four characters. As a minister’s daughter myself, I can certainly relate to Nan and her experiences. Because I have also wrestled with faith, I could relate at some point to most of the questions posed by all the characters. The author caused me to care deeply for the characters, their relationships, and their well being.
The partnership between Charles and James, the co-pastors, was beautiful and inspiring. Even though they had different philosophies, visions, and gifts, they supported each other. They encouraged, sacrificed, exhorted, and believed in the other and did not undermine, criticize, or “unfriend.” It would have been easy for them to divide that church.
I’m Calling it Early!
“Best Read of the Year”
As soon as I turned the last page of The Dearly Beloved, I was tempted to start at the beginning for an immediate reread! I resisted that urge, but it is a book that I will reread one day. I also wish this were a book I could read again for the first time. These are indications of a five-star, memorable read!
Books do not have to be perfect to earn five stars. For me, it’s more about the emotional impact. I was completely engaged with this story from the first page, and my reaction of “Wow!” seals the deal for the best read of the year for me. Up until now, I was wavering about which of this year’s reads would receive that honor. I had some candidates but didn’t have that absolute conviction that I had the ONE. Now I do. It’s still a bit early, but as of this week, The Dearly Beloved is my best read of the year. It will take another extraordinary read to knock it out of first place!
Recommended: I’m wholeheartedly
insisting recommending that you pick up this book today! It checked all my boxes for a great read. There is no objectionable content or language, so it would be suitable as a gift for a wide variety of readers. (thinking ahead to the holidays!) I’ve already put this on my best of the year list, on my lifetime favorites list, and on my “You Must Read This” list. The Dearly Beloved is highly recommended for fans of literary fiction and for those who appreciate a quiet, character-driven story with compelling and thoughtful opportunities for reflection. It would be a wonderful book club selection because of a variety of discussion topics.
Content Advisory: One couple experiences fears of infertility and a child receives a diagnosis of severe autism. In addition, one teenage character loses both parents in a tragic car accident.
***This is my Review of the Month for the review collection on LovelyAudiobooks.info
My Rating: 5+ Stars
Meet the Author, Cara Wall
Cara Wall is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and Stanford University. While at Iowa, Cara taught fiction writing in the undergraduate creative writing department as well as at the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio in her capacity of founder and inaugural director. She went on to teach middle school English and history and has been published by Glamour, Salon, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in New York City with her family.
The Dearly Beloved is on the Long List for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and is an Apple Book of the month for August 2019.
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